Fifteen years ago, Chinese schools ditched Russian and started offering English lessons to all children. This means that everyone you meet in China under the age of 25 knows some of your language. Not only that, most youth love practicing English with travelers. It often makes for instant and humorous conversation and camaraderie.
Chinese children adopt a special Western name, too, for English-speaking practice. There are many Cinderellas and Maries and Michaels. (There are more than 4,000 babies named “Olympic Games.”) On an extended semester abroad, my daughter was given the Chinese name Tingting.
In a small town in the countryside, my wife and I sat on the porch of a bustling Lonely Planet-recommended cafe. A giggling waitress pointed to our salad, identifying each vegetable in English. We tried a few guidebook phrases out on her. And ordered dessert.
When we needed a prescription, our indomitable young guide Maggie took us to the special-for-Westerners third floor of a local hospital. When the doctor looked quizzical, Maggie pulled out her hand-held translating computer and found the right word. A few days into the trip, she called us her “dog meat,” a term of friendship outside the city.
Prior to visiting a temple, I asked my daughter what to wear so as not to offend anyone. She laughed and said, “Dad, this is China!” Next to monks meditating on cushions, Chinese tourists in club-wear admired the gold work and drums. Later on, anticipating a rather formal dinner, I asked Maggie a similar question. Her response: “Whatever! This is China!” Fashion and manners are about as global and eclectic as they can be. Beijing pulses 24 hours a day with diversity, color, noise and energy.
Tiananmen Square was frightening. Ghosts and security, black-windowed vans and stern soldiers were everywhere. Even our cabdriver couldn’t wait to get away. The square was always crowded, though.
Proud of his country’s quick and broad rescue efforts after the May 12 earthquake, a young man confided, “Our government is very good in an emergency or in time of war. In time of peace, well, maybe not as good.” Still, he loves his country. Very curious about life in the United States, his ambition is to make enough money to run a small hostel in the countryside. Tourists are everywhere, all the time. He likes Americans the best; Germans and Australians, not so much. At sprawling Internet cafes filled with oversize flat screens, a third of the gamers browse American sitcoms, news and NBA games.
Everyone is very proud of the Olympics. And their China.
Walking to the last gate of the largest, brightest, cleanest airport terminal in the world, a traveler sees a Lucite kiosk filled with Chinese money. All the writing on the display is in Chinese, except the numbers 5 and 12. Heading back to the States, most passengers leave their spare currency and coin behind.
It’s possible to root for JKidd, LeBron and Coach K and Yao Ming, Tank Man and the Chinese people.